About 200 km south-west of Delhi, in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, is the town of Khetri. Dominated by the sprawling, relatively unknown, fortress of Bhopalgarh, this small Rajasthani town has had a far greater impact on Indian history than you probably realise.
Once a small fiefdom of the Shekhawat Rajas, Khetri is intimately connected with the life of Swami Vivekananda. It is also one of the few places in India that boasted its own ‘Nehru’ as its chief minister. Intrigued? Come visit this otherwise nondescript town in north-east Rajasthan.
Shekhawati is an arid region famous for the painted havelis of Marwari merchants. Although nominally under the control of the Maharajas of Jaipur, it was essentially ruled by semi-independent Rajas and Thakurs, who lorded over fiefdoms known as ‘Thikanas’. The most prominent among these was Khetri, which was ruled by the Shekhawat clan.
It was Raja Bhopal Singh (1735-1771 CE) who built the fortress at Khetri in 1754 CE and named it ‘Bhopalgarh’ after himself. However, it was his descendant, Raja Ajit Singh (1861-1901 CE), who would leave a mark on Indian history.
In the 1890s, Raja Ajit Singh became a great patron of an emerging Indian monk and scholar named Narendranath Datta. It was in this very town, in May 1893, that Raja Ajit Singh conferred on Narendranath a new name – ‘’Swami Vivekananda’. Raja Ajit Singh also sponsored Swami Vivekananda’s trip to Chicago in September 1893, for the Parliament of World Religions.
A very close friend of Raja Ajit Singh and legal advisor to the Khetri state was none other than Motilal Nehru, the father of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehru family had an intimate connection with Khetri. Motilal Nehru’s elder brother, Pandit Nandlal Nehru, had served as the ‘Dewan’ or Chief Minister of Khetri in the 1870s, and Motilal himself had spent several years of his childhood in Khetri. After Independence, Khetri became a part of the state of Rajasthan.
The Bhopalgarh fortress towers above the skyline as you approach Khetri and it is difficult not to be impressed by its looming presence. As you look up to the battlements and what looks like a medieval gazebo, its daunting scale is obvious. If you’re not up to the 4-km trek from the base of the hill to the fortress, you can drive up the dirt track that leads right through the impressive gates and up to the fort.
The view from here is jaw-dropping. A small settlement, perhaps descendants of the occupants of Bhopalgarh during its glory days, still exists. The rest of the buildings inside are in ruins and the grandeur can only be imagined when you see glimpses of intricate frescos on ceilings here and there.
The ramparts are spread in both directions and its surroundings, and what remains of the fort, is impressive due to its sheer length and size. Even though there has been no attempt to preserve the monumental structure, the town will always be remembered for an equally weighty legacy, bestowed by one of its most progressive Rajas.
LHI Travel Guide
Drive along NH 48 towards Jaipur and past Behror. 10 km beyond Behror, at Kherki Mukkar, take district road MDR129 to Nangal Choudhary, then MDR93 to Khetri.
Nilesh Korgaokar is an ex-Army officer, retired as a Lt Col in 1998 and currently working for the World Bank Group in New Delhi. He is a history enthusiast who likes to document his travels via story-telling pictures.